THREE CENTERS WITH A COMMON PURPOSE
On Orcas Island, three distinct centers serve the community by providing early childhood education. Children’s House began in 1969, Montessori in 1988, and Kaleidoscope in 1991. Today, the centers cumulatively enroll approximately 100 early learning students annually and represent revenues in excess of $800,000. Over the years, the centers have expanded facilities and classrooms to meet the community’s increasing need for early education.
The centers share common goals and face many common challenges which over the years have brought them closer together. For the past five years, the centers have increasingly communicated and collaborated in ways to better serve the ECE community.
Beyond regulation similarities, center directors commonly meet as a group with San Juan County ECEAP Director Ethna Flanagan for professional development and to learn more about the potential impact of legislation unfolding in Olympia.
While the centers meet county, state and federal requirements, there have not been clearly defined benchmarks and standards by which ALL the programs could be definitively measured. This is now changing. Over the last two years, and with support from Teaching Strategies Gold, Early Achievers and Foundations in Early Literacy, the centers finally have the tools with which they can more precisely capture and measure child outcomes, record development milestones and help close the achievement gap for children with high needs.
Within the next two years, the early childhood data systems are expected to connect with the Orcas Island School District, thereby providing the final link to definitive measurement: tracking.
Current Initiatives and Timelines
In more recent history, the centers have increasingly focused on ways to improve the quality and measurability of their early learning programs. Three important programs introduced over the last two years now effectively arm the centers with the tools they need. These initiatives include:
- P4-Alignment: David Matteson Foundations in Early Literacy
- Teaching Strategies Gold (ECEAP)
- Early Achievers: Washington State’s Quality Rating and Improvement System Standards (QRIS)
All four centers integrated the David Matteson Foundations in Early Literacy curriculum, aligning the literacy programs in preschool though 4th grade — critical years for building a foundation for reading and writing. By using similar teaching methods and materials, the program has had proven success in Washington State and beyond for increasing early literacy.
In tandem with the P4-Alignment, licensed preschools began using Teaching Strategies Gold (TSG) for measuring education outcomes. A component of ECEAP, TSG is a development and social/emotional assessment tool. Observations are documented then — along with supporting photos or video — uploaded to the state’s TSG database. The online component adds a greater level of objectivity and thoroughness to the documentation.
In the largest improvement initiative yet, Washington State rolled out a comprehensive plan to help early learning centers provide the highest quality education opportunity to pre-K students. The three centers enrolled in Early Achievers in fall 2013. The project provides a common set of expectations and standards to define and measure the quality of early learning settings. The WA Department of Early Learning developed the standards to define comprehensive center quality and ensure that quality practices are having a direct impact on individual children’s progress.
Early Achievers raises the bar for quality expectations and defines the benchmarks by which centers will be measured. The program is expected to take up to two years to complete.
The Critical Mission of Orcas Island ECE
By providing both family service and support, the centers fill a vital and complex role that increasingly becomes woven into the fabric of the community’s well-being.
By providing early childhood education, their programs have far reaching impact. Research shows the long-term impact of high quality preschool environments on the development of young children. The period of birth through age eight has long been seen as a critical span of development for physical well-being and motor development, language and literacy development, cognitive development, social-emotional development and motivational and regulator skills associated with school readiness and later life.
As the centers take on increasing responsibility and accountability for the continuing improvement in quality of their programs, the cost of administering and staffing those programs rise.
Couple that with the fact that families on Orcas can’t meet the full cost of the education opportunity without subsidies and donations currently, the centers project they will be spending an increasing amount of time fundraising with less time available to implement quality improvements.
(Consider the fact that the median household income in San Juan County is 13 percent lower than the state average while the median value of owner-occupied housing is 170 percent of the state average.)
Beyond providing early education opportunities, the centers provide a vital touch-point to the community’s overall well-being. Serving more than a hundred families annually, experienced teachers and administrative staff are finely attuned to family needs and are often the first to recognize family health issues or financial needs and to identify a child’s development delays and connect the family with specialists for early intervention.
As a part of their enrollment process, the centers collect health, immunization and immunization exemption records on all students, gaining a clear picture of which island children could be at risk during outbreaks of contagious diseases. And as mandated reporters, center staff is often the first to recognize and report concerns for a child’s safety or well-being.
As a part of their responsibility, the centers maintain intimate interactions with families, again providing essential community outreach and support.
- They gather critical documentation at registration (health and immunization records, family background and early development milestones) ;
- When classrooms are full, they retain “wait lists” of families seeking space;
- They serve on the board of the Orcas Island Family Resource Center, which gives voice to individual families and connects those in need with specific resources;
- They assume hands-on roles in critical safety, health and well-being programs like the holiday Giving Tree Program, shoe and coat drives, fire and earthquake awareness drills, immunization clinics and similar efforts that directly support Orcas Island families year-round.
Undoubtedly, as the quality of early education continues to rise, Orcas Island centers will rely increasingly on community funding to succeed.